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Pluto starts to swim into focus…


Yesterday the New Horizons team released a pair of images which set the space enthusiast community alight, and excited everyone following the mission. They weren’t images of Pluto itself, but “behind the scenes” pictures of some of the team gathered around a laptop, reacting to their first glimpses of the latest images of Pluto to come back from the probe…

1st close up

After my initial “What are you looking at??? Turn the laptop around, I want to see too!!!” reaction, a few things struck me about those images. Firstly, the sheer joy on their faces as they view those images. They aren’t just scientists, they’re space enthusiasts, just like us. They are having the time of their lives, aren’t they? They are exploring, seeing new things, making discoveries which will re-write the astronomy books and change the way we view the outer solar system forever and they are as giddy as kids on Christmas Day morning seeing their presents stacked under the tree. Secondly, they’re not standing beneath some huge ARMAGEDDON-like screen in cliche hands-on-hips superhero scientist poses, they’re clustered around a laptop, just a laptop, like yours or mine – well, ok, probably a lot more powerful and expensive than mine, but you know what I mean! – and looking at images their spacecraft has taken, just like you or I would look at pictures we’ve taken on holiday. I love that!

But what WERE they looking at? When those images appeared I couldn’t resist guessing…

1st close up

…but late last night the real reason for their excitement was revealed, when the latest image of Pluto was released to the world. If you haven’t seen it already, brace yourselves…

we have geology

Wow… look at that… we can now see SURFACE DETAIL ON PLUTO!!! As the team declared in its press release… “Houston… we have geology!

Looking at that image, even in its raw form, a lot of things are obvious. Firstly, Pluto is no flat, boring body. It has features on its ancient surface, areas of starkly-contrasting light and dark and, even more exciting, topography. There are shapes visible on that image, lines and circles and that hexagon… thing… on the left. With a bit of tweaking (NOT done in any scientific way, I hasten to add, just messing about with levels and contrast etc to bring out details and emphasise features, etc) the view becomes even more dramatic…


Oh, look at that…. isn’t that beautiful??? 🙂 🙂 There’s SO much going on there… the boundaries between the light and dark areas are very sharp and clear… that hexagon… thing… really stands out… are those *craters* along that band in the middle…? Can’t wait to see the next images, which will be even clearer!

So, NOW we know why the New Horizons team was looking so happy in those pictures: they had just become the first people, in history, to see details on the surface of Pluto.

And the best thing is they’re letting us look over their shoulders.

If you want to see the images of Pluto being taken by New Horizons – not live, of course; the scientists have to get first look, that’s only fair! – you can go to a website and just see them. No registration required, no logging in, no terms or conditions, you can just see them. And then, if that’s your thing, you can play about with them – sorry, skilfully enhance and process them to bring out any particular details or features that catch your eye, or turn them into animated gifs, or 3D anaglyphs, all sorts of things. That’s what I do, to a degree, but just for my own amusement and use in my outreach work really, others do it soooo much better than me. In this way the New Horizons team is following in the footsteps of other NASA missions, especially the Mars rovers (all of them) and CASSINI, and as well as being a very generous thing to do it just makes sense: space missions like these aren’t cheap, and they’re basically paid for by tax-payers, so why WOULD you want to stop the people who pay for the photos to be taken from seeing them? That would be crazy, right?

Well, not everyone thinks that way, sadly. Even though every day now, Every Day, without paranoid ramblings about “proprietary periods” or the need to “preserve science” the New Horizons team is happily – almost giddily – releasing new images of Pluto, inviting the world to share in their joy of discovery and the thrill of exploration, allowing us all to feel part of this historic adventure, the OSIRIS team on the European Space Agency ROSETTA mission continues to horde its images, sharing them with a select number of scientists when they feel like it while refusing to let the media or the public, which paid for them to be taken, to see them. In contrast, the mission’s NAVCAM team is releasing images daily, and now has an archive of *thousands* of images available to browse. Additionally, the ROSETTA mission outreach team has done a fantastic job, and continues to do so, and ROSETTA scientists like Matt Taylor and Emily Baldwin  are brilliant ambassadors for the mission and ESA. As an organsation, ESA is supporting the mission enthusiastically, so I wonder how they feel about the people in charge of the most advanced camera onboard their history-making space-probe behaving like selfish children who won’t share their toys? It’s just shameful and shocking that the OSIRIS team, which promised us regular releases in the run-up to the probe’s arrival, is behaving in the way it is, which is to have a total disregard, even contempt, for the modern way of doing things, which helps the public to feel involved in the missions they pay for through their taxes. I just can’t get my head around it.


As we all drool over the latest images of Pluto (you know, I found myself smiling and shaking my head in disbelief when I wrote that… ‘…the latest images of Pluto’!! haha!!!) the contrast between Old Space (OSIRIS) and New Space (New Horizons) could not be starker or more shaming. In years to come I have no doubt that the way the OSIRIS team has behaved will be cited as a textbook example of how not to participate in a mission. In lectures, Powerpoint presentations and theses for years to come, people will use OSIRIS as the classic example of how to undermine the space agency behind a mission and alienate the public. Such a shame.

Although I would *never* personally condone such a thing, *obviously*, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if one of those darling little Korean or Russian hackers, who takes such perverse delight in writing their pain in the arse computer viruses, are space enthusiasts, and wondering what would happen if their curiosity got  the better of them and they turned their attention towards the OSIRIS servers, releasing some of the poor images of 67P cruelly being held hostage there, chained to radiators in the OSIRIS HQ basement…

So, again, although I’ve said it before, here on my blog and in personal messages to the team, a huge THANK YOU to Alan Stern and the New Horizons team for allowing all of us to share in their excitement and joy at this historic time. Thank you for allowing us to stand beside you as you reveal Pluto in all its bizarre geological glory. 🙂

I think we forget sometimes how lucky we are to be alive at this incredible time. Unless we do something stupid and blow ourselves up, or exterminate ourselves with some virus or other, in centuries to come people will see Pluto and its moons – and the other worlds and moons in our solar system – in person, marvelling at them either on their surfaces or through the windows of their spacecraft. It’s easy to think about that and envy them, to kick angrily at the dirt and grumble “I wish I lived a hundred years in the future, when the world was more like Star Trek…” but I was thinking about this just yesterday, after a successful trip into town to see if the model attached to the cover of the latest issue of the bi-weekly “Star Trek – The Official Starships Collection” magazine was worth buying. Some weeks they are – a model of one of the classic ships – and others they’re not, like when the model is of some can’t-remember-ever-seeing-that Kazon supply ship or A Gorn toilet scow or something like that, but I always enjoy the anticipation of going into WH Smiths and looking at the dump bin by the front door, just in case there’s a ST mag in it with something worth buying attached to its cover. It’s a bit like a sci-fi lucky dip or scratch card. So, yesterday I went in, and yes, there was a new issue of the magazine… I picked it up –

YES!!!!! GET ***IN*** there!!! It was the starship I’d been waiting for…


And the model that was on the cover…


There she is… a thing of beauty… NCC 1701… the original Constitution class Enterprise. I have wanted a model of her ever since I was a child, and never managed it. Now I have one, and she has taken her place alongside her sister ships in the fleet next to my computer…


Why am I twittering on about Star Trek star-ships? Well, after I had sat staring at and playing with my new scale model for half an hour, it set me thinking, imagining a far future when an organisation something like Starfleet could well be flying sleek star-ships to faraway suns, and as I found myself wishing that I could be alive in a future like that, not for the first time, it suddenly hit me that even if I was alive at that time I probably would be no better off than I am now; it would be very unlikely for me to be one of the people “out there”, travelling to and exploring those ‘strange new worlds’. For one thing, the future simply won’t be like it is in Star Trek. Let’s be honest here: the Star Trek universe is basically an idealised hippy-trippy Haight Ashbury tree- and dilithium crystal-hugging utopia where no-one has a *real* job, and everyone is rich and free enough to float from planet to planet wearing the latest designer fashion and spouting New Age platitudes. Come on, the real future won’t be anything like that, will it? Star travel will be hugely, obscenely expensive, and only a chosen few will get to do it for the first half dozen generations of interstellar travel. That means the odds of someone like me being able to “get out there” and sight-see are vanishingly small. Think about it. To have the chance to do that I would have to apply to join “Starfleet” or whatever it was called, then be accepted, then complete all the training, and then I might get assigned to a ship that would go on one of the glamour missions, the missions of true exploration. Far more likely that even if I did graduate from Starfleet I would barely scrape through my exams and end up as a tablet-tapping clerk on some milk run between Earth and Titan. And if I didn’t manage that, if I flunked my classes, I would be stranded Earthside, in a normal job, and would have to make do, like everyone else, with seeing pictures and videos of all the fantastic planets, their cities and inhabitants the Starfleet elite were seeing in person – as I said, not really any better off than now!

No. The internet is my Enterprise, and NASA is my Starfleet.

So, as much as I love Star Trek, I’m happy to be sitting here on this dull Saturday in Kendal in July 2015, with the cat stretched out and snoring beside me, my laptop on my knee, listening to “The Wall” while I swoon over the latest images of Pluto and look forward to the coming few days. Ages ago I booked Tuesday and Wednesday off work so I could follow the fly-by properly, as it happened, and not have to catch upon events after they had happened, so come Monday night I’m going to make myself a cosy little nest here, settle down, and drink in every historic minute of it. Some of the highlights on NASA TV (UK times) will be:

Monday, July 13

4pm – 5pm – A “Media Briefing”, with a Mission Status report and “What to Expect” guide.

THE BIG DAY!!! Tuesday, July 14

12.30 – 1pm – “Arrival at Pluto Countdown Program

From the NASA TV schedule: “At approximately 12.49pm, New Horizons is scheduled to be as close as the spacecraft will get to Pluto, approximately 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers) above the surface, after a journey of more than nine years and three billion miles. The moment of closest approach will be marked during the live NASA TV broadcast that includes a countdown and discussion of what’s expected next as New Horizons makes its way past Pluto and potentially dangerous debris.”

**** 1pm – 2pm– Media briefing, including a release of images ****

Wednesday July 15th

(Note to self: going to be a long, long day… best check coffee and snack supplies!)

01.30 – 02.15am – “Phone Home”, broadcast from APL Mission Control

NASA TV will share the suspenseful moments of this historic event with the public and museums around the world. The New Horizons spacecraft will send a preprogrammed signal after the closest approach. The mission team on Earth should receive the signal by about 02.02am. ( When New Horizons “phones home,” there will be a celebration of its successful flyby and the anticipation of data to come in the days and months ahead.

02.30 – 03.00am – Media Briefing: New Horizons Health and Mission Status

And then, in the evening, the biggie…

**** 8 – 9pm Media Briefing:Seeing Pluto in a New Light” ****

Release of close-up images of Pluto’s surface and moons, along with initial science team reactions.

Right….off to Iceland to buy some coffee, tea bags, Nik Naks and chocolate biscuits. Going to be a long, and exciting, few days…! To finish off with, a look at some recommended sites to bookmark for the adventure ahead…

New Horizons picture gallery

New Horizons website

New Horizons Flyby Countdown

Where Is New Horizons?

Realtime New Horizons simulator

Emily Lakdawalla’s blog

“PlutoSafari App”

If you’re on Twitter, follow the hashtag #PlutoFlyby, and @NewHorizons2015 | @NASANewHorizons | @AlanStern for information and updates as the encounter proceeds.

2 Responses

  1. […] die täglichen Updates von heute (erstmals live) und gestern und weitere Artikel hier, hier, hier, hier und hier. [23:50 MESZ. NACHTRĂ„GE: und hier, hier, hier und […]

  2. Stuart, you write:
    …Additionally, the ROSETTA mission outreach team has done a fantastic job, and continues to do so, and ROSETTA scientists like Matt Taylor and Emily Baldwin are brilliant ambassadors for the mission and ESA…
    – – – –
    ESA Emily Baldwin (Science Blog Editor) 18/03/2015 at 18:20

    [ … ] the next set of scientific data to be released will be from the post-hibernation phase up until the end of Philae’s post-landing activities and Rosetta’s post-separation manoeuvres on 19 November.
    Following the convention outlined previously, delivery of the data from the instrument teams to ESA is due six months after the end of that period, so in this case, the date is 19 May 2015, with deliveries to be expected then or very soon after… […]
    – – – –
    The archives
    ( ftp://psa.esac.esa.int/pub/mirror/INTERNATIONAL-ROSETTA-MISSION/ )
    don’t yet contain any post-hibernation OSIRIS data.
    The most actual OSIRIS data was forwarded on April 5th, 2012
    – – – –
    I don’t think the firm statement E.B. forwarded makes her (& them) ‘brilliant ambassadors for the mission and ESA’

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